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This Week at St Mary’s

St Cuthbert – Patron Saint of the North

Tess Clothier writes:

Just before Easter, the Church of England commemorated the feast of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. He is one of the (almost forty!) saints depicted in our  glorious stained glass, and as he may be unfamiliar to those who have not visited the North East, I thought I would introduce you to this remarkable early medieval cleric.

St Cuthbert was a 7th-century monk, priest, and bishop who was one of the most venerated saints in Early Medieval England, and is now regarded as the   unofficial patron saint of the North of England. He was instrumental in implementing in the British Isles the customs of Roman Christianity agreed at the Synod of Whitby in the 660s, and spent a good deal of his life as Bishop of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. When he retired to a hermitage on the smaller island of Inner Farne, his holiness was admired by many, and his efforts to protect wildlife, especially birds, made him one of the earliest conservationists. The eider duck, of which there is a large colony in the Farne Islands, is sometimes known as St Cuthbert’s Duck, or Cuddy’s Duck, in his honour.

But Cuthbert’s greatest influence came after his death in 687. He was buried on Lindisfarne and it wasn’t long before miracles began to be reported at his grave. He was made a saint and relocated to an above-ground shrine eleven years after his death, and pilgrims flocked to Lindisfarne to ask for his intercession.

In 793 the first Viking raid took place on Lindisfarne and over the decades that followed the communities of the Farne Islands retreated to the mainland. The body of St Cuthbert went with them, and ‘St Cuthbert’s Folk’ were itinerant for seven years before settling first at Chester-le-Street, then at Ripon, and finally in Durham. A shrine was proposed and by 1104 he was put to rest in what would become the great Durham Cathedral. 

Though the shrine was stripped of its splendour during the Reformation under Henry VIII the body remained and in the 19th century the tomb was once again opened, the treasures removed (now in Durham Cathedral Museum) and he was reinterred behind the High Altar under an otherwise undecorated stone inscribed ‘CUTHBERTUS’. His shrine is one of few in Britain where the relics survived the Reformation, and it continues to be an important site of pilgrimage for Christians today.

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